Imperial fiction: Penny Plain

It was a nice question, his wife used to say before the War (when hearts were lighter and laughter easier), whether Mr Macdonald was prouder of his sons or his flowers, and when, as sometimes happened he had them all with him in the garden, his cup of content had been full.
– O. Douglas, Penny Plain (1920)

The book is a heartening reminder that there are more sterling materials for the novelist than ‘problems’, and that true love, and kindness, and the spirit which can face good or ill fortune with a like serenity, are topics which are always fresh.
The Scotsman (1920)

Anna BuchanWriting under the name O. Douglas, Anna Buchan was a moderately successful novelist, though her achievements as a writer were – and are still – overshadowed by those of her older brother, John Buchan. Indeed, there is a strong family resemblance in the work: Douglas didn’t do the action hero stuff, but the underlying value system will be familiar to Buchan’s readers.

Penny Plain – her third book – was the commercial breakthrough, becoming a best-seller on publication in 1920. There are shades of Jane Eyre and Cranford, and it was received at the time as a charming tale of a peaceful provincial community. ‘Miss Douglas eschews passion and apathy in her books,’ wrote one reviewer, ‘preferring a happy medium of idyllic family affection, deep and true love between man and woman, lamp-lit cheerfulness, and love glowing with a happy, lunar radiance.’

A century on, though, and the interest is perhaps less in the stable surface of this world and more in the disturbing undercurrents.

‘Sometimes it feels as if we comfortable people are walking in a flowery meadow that is really a great quaking morass, and underneath there is black slime full of unimaginable horrors,’ observes the main character, early on. ‘The War made a tremendous crack. It seemed then as if we were all to be drawn into the slime, as if cruelty had got its fangs into the heart of the world. When you knelt to pray at nights you could only cry and cry. The courage of the men who grappled in the slime with the horrors was the one thing that kept one from despair.’

That might threaten rather more disruption than is ever delivered, but there are intriguing glimpses of disquiet.

Set in a town named Priorsford in the Scottish Borders, Penny Plain centres on Jean Jardine, a young woman orphaned in childhood and brought up by her great-aunt. The old woman having died four years ago, Jean is now the head of ‘a queer little family’, comprising her two younger brothers, aged nineteen and fourteen, and their seven-year-old step-brother, together with a single elderly servant.Scotsman 12 August 1920

Their late father was in the Indian Civil Service, and left them a small private income that enables them to live in genteel poverty, renting ‘an odd little rough stone cottage, standing at one end of a row of villas, its back turned to its parvenu neighbours, its eyes lifted to the hills.’ And genteel poverty, of course, is a fine way for a novelist to provide us access to a fair spread of society.

Which is pretty much what the book does; it’s essentially a series of character studies from the well-to-do through to the poor. There’s a plot of sorts – an unexpected inheritance, a double-romance – but it doesn’t take up much space. Nor is it even vaguely plausible, a fact which Douglas brushes off with beautifully Buchanesque nonchalence; this is a character reflecting on recent romantic developments: ‘rather far-fetched, I agree, but Fate is often like a novelette.’ It’s sheer brass neck, of course, but none of that matters. Because really we’re just following the example of an old inhabitant of this cottage, who loved the front room, because there: ‘She could sit with her knitting and watch the passers-by.’

According to Jean, ‘the Priorsford people are all more or less nice’, and even though this may make her sound a little Pollyannaish – she herself is seen as ‘being more or less nice to everyone’ – her evaluation is about right. But that doesn’t mean these people don’t have their sufferings, troubles and eccentricities.

There’s Bella Bathgate next door, for example. She’s respectably poor (a very different thing, of course, to genteel poor) and a fierce Calvinist, taking a long view of the class war:

‘I’m nae Socialist masel’. There maun aye be rich and poor, Dives in the big hoose and Lazarus at the gate But so long as we’re sure that Dives’ll catch it in the end, and Lazarus lie soft in Abraham’s bosom, we can pit up wi’ the unfairness here.’

Then there’s Mrs Hope, a widow who had three sons, all of whom gave their lives in the service of the Empire: ‘Two died in India, one – a soldier – in one of the Frontier skirmishes; the other – an ICS man – from over-working in a famine-stricken district. The youngest fell in the Boer War.’ As Jean concludes: ‘So you see, Mrs Hope has the right to be proud.’

Also bereaved is Mrs Macdonald, the minister’s wife, whose youngest son died in the Great War. In a particularly sharp episode, she furiously recounts being troubled by an unwelcome visitor, Mrs Morton: ‘She sat there breathing opulence, and told me how hard it was for her to live – she, a lone woman with six servants to wait on her and a car and a chauffeur!’ Mrs Morton has decided not to subscribe to the town’s war memorial because ‘it seems rather a wasteful proceeding’, and Mrs Macdonald fumes silently: ‘I could have told her that surely it wasn’t waste the men were thinking about when they poured out their youth like wine that she and her like might live and hug their bank books.’

There’s no real doubt, though, that the conflict was a noble and necessary enterprise. Lewis Elliot was already settled when he heard the call: ‘The War came, and of course I offered my services. I wasn’t much use but, thank goodness, I got out to France, and got some fighting – a second-lieutenant at forty!’ Now he’s returned home, his duty done, even if Mrs Hope feels he should be in public life: ‘He might have done a lot in the world with his brain and his heart and his courage, but there he is contentedly settled in that green glen of his, and greatly absorbed in sheep.’

The most tragic figure, though, is one who has nothing to do with the war. Mrs Duff-Whalley is a vulgar, climbing widow who’s sacrificed her happiness in pursuit of social advancement, only to discover that all her efforts aren’t enough. ‘As a family we totally lack charm,’ her dissatisfied daughter laments. ‘I’ve got a pretty face, and I play games well, so I am tolerated, but I have hardly one real friend. The worst of it is I know all the time where I am falling short, and I can’t help it. I feel myself jar on people.’

Even Jean isn’t quite as settled in her soul as she appears. Her great-aunt was a severe woman who taught her to judge everything she did by the most unforgiving of standards: ‘How will this action look when I am on my death-bed?’ Consequently, Jean has little time for fashions and fripperies. But there’s a conflict within; she’s not entirely wedded to an austere existence.Penny Plain

For this is, above all, a house full of joy and fun. ‘The Jardines have the lovable habit of becoming suddenly overpowered with laughter, crumpled up and helpless,’ we’re told. In case there’s any doubt about what this habit reveals about someone, we’re also told that ‘all really nice people have it’. But we already know the Jardines are nice; we’ve known it since we first saw them in a ‘shabby, friendly room’ where: ‘Books were everywhere: a few precious ones behind glass doors, hundreds in low bookcases round the room.’ An unpretentious love of poetry and stories is a sure sign of grace and taste.

Although no one could ever doubt Jean’s devotion to duty, we know that the strict faith in which she has been brought up is not sufficient; it needs leavening a little, some swashbuckling romance to balance the puritan code. And so she has her moments of anguish, chafing at the bit in private. ‘Doing one’s duty is a dreary business for three-and-twenty,’ she reflects. ‘It goes on for such a long time.’

Into this community come intruders. First, Pamela, a forty-year-old unmarried socialite seeking simplicity and silence; she finds that even in the strictest corners of Priorsford, there’s a place for her: ‘We need the flowers and the butterflies and the things that adorn,’ Mrs Hope tells her.

And then arrives her younger brother, Lord Bidborough, affectionately known as Biddy.

We can tell that Biddy is a decent chap by his attitude to books – ‘I enjoy Huckleberry Finn as much now as I did when I was twelve’ – and by the way that the children instantly fall under his spell. But then it’s hard not to fall under his spell: he’s a variation on the theme of Buchan’s glamorous heroes, the kind of man who meanders through life with an air of slightly detached, idle amusement, but who can switch to an intensely alive concentration in a blink of an eye. This is Lewis Haystoun in Buchan’s The Half-Hearted (1900):

His face had closed up like a steel trap. It was no longer the kindly, humorous face of the sportsman and good fellow, but the keen, resolute face of the fighter, the schemer, the man of daring. The lines about his chin and brow seemed to tighten and strengthen and steel, while the grey eyes had for a moment a glint of fire.

And here’s Biddy in Penny Plain, ‘stood before the fire, his hands in his pockets, his head thrown back, his eyes no longer lazy and amused, but keen and alert.’

A keen adventurer, Biddy’s great ambition has long been to climb Everest. ‘He and three great friends had arranged it all before the War, but everything of course was stopped, and whatever happens he will never climb it with those three friends.’ He himself survived, but he’ll never be quite the same again, as Pamela points out: ‘The War has changed him of course, emptied and saddened his life, and he isn’t the light-foot lad he was six years ago.’ Even so, he still cuts quite a dash in Priorsford. ‘In this pedestrian world,’ concludes Jean, ‘Biddy had something of the old cavalier grace.’

Actually, although he’s an agreeable enough character, he’s curiously colourless next to the people of Priorsford. He may have tales to tell of the big, wide world, but they don’t seem to provide him with the pure pleasure that Bella Bathgate derives from funding missionaries. ‘Bella was passionately interested in missions. The needs of the heathen lay on her heart. Every penny she could scrape together went into “the box”.’ This is a time when few women had any direct experience of the colonies – certainly of those outside India – and the provision of financial support for missions is seen here as the female equivalent of the excitements of empire. Such women were mocked in Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River, and the missionaries themselves ridiculed in Barry Pain’s The Exiles of Faloo, but Bella Bathgate shows the other side: ‘Missions were the romance of her life. They put a scarlet thread into the grey.’


In short, this is a familiar landscape for a Buchan reader. ‘The place is so perfect that the first sight of it catches the breath,’ as Buchan wrote of Sandy Arbuthnot’s Borders estate in The Island of Sheep (an estate, incidentally, named after that owned by Lewis Elliot in Penny Plain). ‘Beyond the containing walls of the valley lie heathy uplands hiding an infinity of glens and burns, nameless except to herds and keepers.’ It’s a place that Douglas also knew well – indeed her posthumously published autobiography was titled Farewell to Priorsford (1950) – and her love for it is greater even than his, for she’s describing the world that his heroes leave behind when they go out roaming the four corners of the earth.

‘It has been objected that the people of her books are too “pleasant”,’ noted an obituary, on her death in 1948, ‘but at a time when fiction was passing through an ultra-realistic phase, this pleasantness was a relief to many readers.’ That’s still true, but it’s not quite the whole picture. The real appeal of the book lies in Douglas’s celebration of decency and duty, social responsibility and joy in life – and in showing those virtues surviving, despite adversity and hardship. Yet the atmosphere that lingers is more bittersweet than comforting; there’s a nagging sense that something has been lost in the course of the Great War, even if it’s still too early to know quite what it was.

As Mrs Hope says: ‘It does seem to me – or is it only distance lending enchantment? – that the people I used to know were more human, more interesting; there was less worship of money, less running after the great ones of the earth, certainly less vulgarity. We were content with less, and happier.’

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